What should I carry in a rucksack/backpack?

Taking a small rucksack with some essential items can make a bad day a whole lot better!

During our Outdoor First Aid courses we’re often asked “What should I carry I carry in a rucksack?”. Here we consider the sorts of things that may be useful to carry in case of an emergency. Whether you find yourselves in remote places through work or leisure, if things go wrong you may find you’re looking after yourself or another casualty for hours in any weather. 

You don’t need to be an aspiring Red Bull sponsored athlete in a dramatic landscape to benefit from a few nifty items either. The simple pleasure of a walk in the countryside can still lead to situations where you’ll be thankful if you’re prepared. Having a few well thought out things with you can make your life easier, can improve casualty comfort and ultimately, their outcome. On top of a decent outdoor first aid kit, navigational tools, warm and waterproof clothing and food and drink, consider the following items…

Storm Shelter / Emergency Shelter / Bothy Bag / Group Shelter / Kisu

These have many names but all serve the same purpose. They keep wind and rain off a casualty and make a huge difference if a casualty becomes immobile. People who’ve used them are often surprised just how much a difference they can make!

Not only are they useful to look after yourself if you need to get out of the weather but can be used to create a sheltered space to help someone else.

A shelter can be used as a groundsheet, can be held up as a ‘shield’ to stop onlookers staring at a casualty (if someone was having a seizure for example) and some can even be used as an emergency stretcher if necessary! They’re often bright colours so are easy to spot from the air and by rescue teams – so can be used for signalling too.

There are many brands, varying prices and come in a range of sizes.

If possible, try to get one large enough to be placed over a casualty who is lying down, with enough space for someone to care for them. If you’re looking for a shelter for 2 people, getting one for 4 people gives you a little more space for your backpack etc.

We’ve used theses shelters for all sorts of reasons, all over the world and is certainly one of the most useful pieces of kit we use regularly and wouldn’t want to be without.

Blizzard Blanket

Blizzard make a whole range of products. One of our favourites is the 3 layer Blizzard Blanket. They are much warmer, more substantial and more useful than a foil blanket and are designed to stop a casualty (or you) losing heat. They come vacuum packed so they are easily packable, are lightweight and water and windproof.

We love the blanket over the bags simply because the blankets are more versatile. Getting an unresponsive casualty, or a casualty with a broken leg wrapped in a blanket is much easier than getting them into a bag. These blankets can be easily and quickly turned into a bag using the tape/velcro already in place.

Blizzard also do a 2 layer blanket. This is ideal if space is really limited, but the 3 layer is warmer.

Roll Mat

A camping roll mat (or half of one if space is tight) is helpful for putting an immobile casualty onto. We lose a lot of heat into the ground – especially when it’s wet or icy and we want to minimise the amount of heat lost. Some casualties can sit on their backpack, but a foam mat can make a huge difference to a casualty who can’t.

Thin mats are available from as little as £2 which can be doubled over – but thicker is warmer. The issue with thicker mats is that naturally – they take up more space.

We’ve had great success with the OMM Duomat. We’ve carried and used these all over the world as they’re compact and light, so easily slide into the back of a backpack. They’re not the cheapest, but we’ve used some of these for 10 years plus and look like they’ll last another 10 without any problems. They’re only half length – but if you split 2 between a group – you have a full length mat. If you only have one, prioritise the important bits!


Of course, a headlamp should be part of anyone’s outdoor kit – whether you think you’ll need one or not. If an incident develops, you may be with someone in the dark, long after you should have been home in the daylight.

Not only are headlamps useful for seeing what you’re doing in the dark, they can be used for signalling, seeing inside waterproof clothing (for bleeding etc.), guiding a helicopter to a landing zone and lots more. Compact LED headlamps with a high IP rating (water and dust protection) are ideal. Don’t forget spare batteries too.

Gaffa tape/duct tape

Whatever you choose to call it – it’s useful stuff! 

Gaffa tape can be used to make an effective multilayered bag from a number of open blankets to reduce the cooling effects of the environment. You can make and then close off side access to your casualty for monitoring purposes. It can help you splint a limb. It can repair equipment and hold equipment in place.

If using it in a way where it can come into contact with clothing or skin – it’s a good idea to use two pieces of tape – one on top of the other, with sticky sides facing each other. By offsetting the lengths of tape, you’ll have a couple of sticky ends to stick the tape to itself – so that any clothing isn’t damaged. The limit of Gaffa tape is really your imagination!

Instead of carrying an industrial sized roll around with you, wrap a length of tape around a pencil, sharpie, or an old credit card – so it takes up very little space…

Waterproof Notebook and Pencil / Sharpie

Gathering information, getting further help and monitoring a casualty are all important parts of First Aid. A notebook with waterproof paper and a pencil or sharpie work well for this in any weather conditions. Personally, we love the sharpie!

Not only can you record casualty details and monitor their progress, but you can also write location details using a grid reference/What3Words location to be taken for help if there is no phone reception.

SAM Splint

SAM splints are inexpensive, lightweight and easily packable. As the name suggests, they’re designed to be used as a splint and come either rolled or folded. We find the folded ones easier to slip down the back of a backpack and remain there unnoticed until required. The 36 inch splint is  the most versatile and we’re very rarely without at least one! Having two increases your options.

SAM splint

Is there anything else?

Not everyone needs everything but we’ve covered a few things to consider. We’ve focussed on the items that can be easily carried and that are difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to make in an emergency. If you’ve got something that you never venture into the outdoors without – why not get in touch to let us know?!

Need to brush up on your first aid skills and knowledge for adventuring into the great outdoors, or anywhere, then just get in touch!

For now, happy adventuring!